The New Urban Forager


 

On a hot, humid day along Houston's
Buffalo Bayou, in the shadow of four abandoned concrete silos, a maggot
infested corpse of a pit bull lies splayed across a sheet of black plastic.
Nearby, a pile of asphalt roofing material blocks the path I'm taking down to
one of the most polluted waterways in Texas.
Not a promising beginning to an urban food foraging expedition.

And yet the same heat and moisture
that hastens this unfortunate pit bull's return to the soil, gives life to a
riotous mass of tropical plants, bursting out of cracked pavement, vining up
abandoned fences, reclaiming spaces where industry once flourished. On the wild
banks of this urban bayou, the cycles of life, death, creation and destruction
play out just a few feet from the gas stations, tacuerias, dollar stores, and
strip malls of our built landscape. Even in such close proximity to what now
passes for civilization, we can return to a human history before American Idol,
before Freud and Marx, before agriculture to become the hunters and gatherers
we once were. A mulberry tree grows just feet from the dead pit bull, its roots
entwined with the crumbling remains of the concrete plant, its branches adorned
with dozens of dark purple berries, succulent, sweet, ready for the picking and
not available at any supermarket.

Heading down the path along the
bayou I run into Cristóbal and Jenny. Cristóbal grew up in the adjacent barrio
and can remember a time before the skyscrapers of downtown Houston
loomed over this semi-wild, neglected neighborhood. Jenny, in her late 40s, her
hair and skin betraying many years spent in the sun, is a refugee from Kansas
who was robbed of all her possessions when she first arrived at the Houston Greyhound
station. They have set up a semi-permanent camp alongside the bayou's muddy
banks.

When I meet up with them they are gathering blackberries in a tub. Jenny
once made a cobbler out of them on a campfire, an accomplishment Cristóbal
describes with great pride. Having grown up on a farm, Jenny knows how to
preserve the abundance that nature presents: how to dry, pickle and can. She
also knows the more esoteric art of mead making, the difference between
melomels and braggots, and the finer points of racking, bottling and aging. When
I ask her if she picked up her mead making skills from her ancestors in Arkansas
she says that in fact she learned it all working Renaissance fairs,
interrupting her stream of consciousness to launch into her medieval Irish
alter-ego.

Jenny and Cristóbal are true urban
foragers who also know their way around the soup kitchens of this down on its
luck neighborhood. They take me to where a spigot sticking out of the slab of a
demolished furniture warehouse provides a source of free drinking and bathing
water. They ask neighbors for the surplus fruit from their backyard trees to
supplement the wild fruits by the Bayou.

Foraging is a valuable skill set to
possess, whatever your situation in life. It can help you through lean times,
and enrich flush times. Wild foods are often more nutritious than their
cultivated relatives, and bring a whole new range of flavor to your jaded urban
palette. What's more, if you grow some of your own food, as we do, finding a
feral edible-a plant you did not have to tend, but is just there for the
eating-is a thrill on par with finding a fantastic garage sale, or a twenty
dollar bill rolling down the sidewalk. But what we like most is that the act of
foraging puts us in touch with the world of plants and the cycles of the season.
It grounds us and tunes us into nature, even when we're strolling down grimy
Sunset Boulevard.

The last great prophet of foraging,
Euell Gibbons, argued passionately for intimacy with the natural world. His
unlikely fifteen minutes of fame came during the last big economic downturn,
in the 1970s, a period, like the present, of expensive oil and inflation. Some of
us generation Xers and older folks will remember Gibbons as a Post Grape Nuts
spokesman and the butt of jokes of 70's television talk shows (he was also a
pot smoking communist and Quaker). But Gibbons was a serious and knowledgeable
naturalist, and an inspiration for a whole generation of back-to-the-landers.
He picked up his skills during the depths of the Great Depression, and as a teen
fed his family with forays into the woods when they had run out of food.

With our disconnection from the
natural world comes an ignorance and suspicion of foraging. We may know how to
reconfigure a hard drive, but when it comes to recognizing what stinging
nettle looks like, well, that just ain't taught in school. Gibbons says,

"This anti-nature attitude in our
culture comes from very respectable sources. One of those sources was Charles
Darwin: he said that sometimes the 'fittest' creature was the one which
cooperated . . . but every example he gave us was an example of competition.
Another source was Spencer, who first used the term 'struggle for
existence.' Wallace too. Even Thomas Huxley claimed that each form of life
is in continuous battle and competition with every other. There's nothing wrong
with that statement except that it's pure bullcrap. Nature is typified by cooperation
and mutualism. It's everywhere. The production of fruit and the scattering of
seed by animals is one example. Flowers and bees are another. There are
thousands and thousands of examples of mutual aid . . . of one life form
absolutely dependent, on another. I find that the 'fittest' is very
often the life form which has best learned to cooperate with other life forms
around it." (Read the whole Gibbons interview at
Mother Earth News.)

Can we forage our entire diet? No.
But we can supplement our gardens and supermarket forays with a bountiful
harvest of unique wild plants. Responsible foraging places us within the
mutualistic sprit of nature that Gibbons refers to, not to mention the benefits
of fresh air and exercise. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors actually spent less
time gathering food than we do now, if you consider "gathering" the 40+ hour
work weeks and long distance commuting we do to afford trips to the
supermarket. While we may not be able to reclaim our ancestral past, we
certainly can learn the lessons of Gibbon's cooperative life lived in the
abundance of nature.

Here's a few of Homegrown
Evolution's favorite plants to forage for, things you might find growing near
you:

1. The ubiquitous dandelion (numerous members of the genus Taraxacum).
This is an easy one that most people can recognize. Pick the young leaves and
prepare them as you would any green. We like to steam them for a few minutes
and then fry them up in a pan, Italian style, with some olive oil, hot pepper
flakes, salt and pepper. The flowers can be fermented into dandelion wine–we
haven't tried this but we hear from those who have that it's delicious. The
roots can be roasted, dried and made into a non-caffeinated coffee substitute.
In New Orleans,
dandelion root is added to coffee as a flavoring.

2. Broadleaf plantain (Plantago majus), the scourge of lawn
fetishists. This is a plant that brings terror to golf course turf managers,
all the more reason to celebrate it, in our opinion. Eat the leaves when they
are young. Prepare as any green or put raw in salads. Sometimes called
"white man's foot" since it was imported to North
America by the original settlers of Jamestown
and traveled, like Starbucks franchises, wherever white people went. The seeds
can be used as a laxative, an additional benefit to the golfing demographic.

3. Wild Mustard (Synapis
arvensis
and Synapis alba).
Eat fresh or cooked. It's a bitter green, with a distinct mustard heat that is
very exciting. Young leaves are more tender and less bitter, but we like
bitter. In fact we resent the general infantile sweetening of American food
that came along with the ill-named "Greatest Generation's" post war
1950s blandification campaign. Sure they won WWII, but they also took the hops
out of beer and the flavor out of vegetables. Damn them, skip the bland frozen
food isle, and reclaim that bitterness by hunting down some mustard.

4. Wild salad fixings. Learn to
identify a few of the following plants, and you'll be able to make a feral
salad that will make store-bought lettuce boring ever after: chickweed (Stellaria media), wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta, or similar), miner's
lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), purslane (Portulaca olearacea), mallow (of the family Malvaceae), and wild watercress (Rorippa
officinale
).

4. Blackberries (varies members of
the genus rubus). Free berries? Do we need to say more? Many of these plants
have nasty thorns, so bring some gloves and look out for poison oak/ivy,
sometimes found amidst berry patches.

Some foraging etiquette: don't get
greedy. Harvest a few leaves off a plant rather than pulling up the whole
plant, that way you'll ensure more tasty finds for the next season.

Lastly, you should know a few things
about plants before you head out there. While the overwhelming majority of
plants are merely inedible, such as most grasses, there are a few very deadly
things to look out for like hemlock and oleander, and we strongly recommend
taking a hands-on workshop before you start eating any weed you see.

Odds are someone in your area leads
wild food hikes. Foraging experts tend to come from one of two camps–Sierra
Clubish naturalists and hard-core libertarian survivalist types. The truth is
that either camp can provide the knowledge you need to keep yourself from
accidental poisoning, though the more botanically focused Sierra Club types
will do so without the libertarian harangues. Note that gathering mushrooms is
a whole other discipline that needs to be approached with a higher level of
care due to a greater abundance of toxic look-alikes.

Homegrown Revolution's Kelly and Erik are the authors of the
upcoming handbook
The Urban Homestead, available in June 2008 through Process Media.

Photo by uBookworm, courtesy of Creative Commons license.